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San Francisco Mental Health Board passes ‘no tasers’ resolution 9-2

November 20, 2012

by Carol Harvey

At its Wednesday, Nov. 14, meeting, the San Francisco Mental Health Board welcomed public comment before voting 9 to 2 to pass its resolution against putting Conducted Energy Devices, or tasers, in the hands of San Francisco police Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers.

The board invited San Franciscans with family or friends touched by mental illness, cardiac problems or police brutality or who fear for vulnerable children, plus diabetes sufferers, pregnant women, thin people or at-risk elders and anyone or who has observations on the wisdom or efficacy of SFPD taser deployment to speak at public comment during this hearing.

All the resolution’s points were supported by a large group of public commenters, including Eduardo Vega, executive director of the San Francisco Mental Health Association. Commenters uniformly opposed arming Crisis Intervention Team officers with tasers, pressing the illogic of an armed police officer using a weapon to talk down a person in crisis. Some described personal experiences of police brutality against them. Bruce Allison, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, said a cop threatened to beat him if he didn’t “relax.”

In July 2012, cops fatally shot Pralith Pralourng, a young man with schizophrenia, after he allegedly sliced a co-worker with a box-cutter. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr used this cop killing as a reason to reintroduce at the Aug. 1, 2012, Police Commission hearing the taser option as a supposedly “non-lethal weapon.”

In his remarks to the Mental Health Board, Commander Mikael Ali, the SFPD officer coordinating the Crisis Intervention Team Program, again seconded Chief Suhr’s use of Pralourng’s shooting as a justification for arming police with tasers, saying the victim would be alive today if cops had these weapons available. When the Idriss Stelly Foundation’s Jeremy Miller objected, reminding Ali that Pralith’s sister begged Suhr not to use his death to promote tasers, Commander Ali ordered Miller to be quiet.

Three times previously – 2004, 2008 and 2011 – San Franciscans rejected tasers, pressing hard for the internationally respected Memphis, Tennessee, model in which officers use verbal de-escalation techniques successfully. As a result, today SFPD CIT officers take a 40-hour training in police team verbal de-escalation without weapons when responding to people in mental health or other public crises.

Despite three previous failed attempts to convince the San Francisco Police Commission to approve arming SFPD with tasers, Chief Suhr is trying again, claiming they save lives, although the devices have caused 766 documented American deaths. – Photo: SF Examiner
The Mental Health Board’s resolution, MHB – 2012-06, “urges the San Francisco Police Commission and the SFPD to oppose the adoption of Tasers to SFPD CIT officers.”

A key concern is that “the risk of Taser injuries and/or death is heightened for the mentally and emotionally ill who, in a crisis, may be potentially unable to connect actions to consequences and may resist police even in the face of stepped-up force.”

Marykate Connor, Caduceus Outreach Services director, observes that adrenaline surges from internal pain or fear often overpower the ability of a person in crisis to hear police commands, much less follow them. Catapulted into a flight response by terror, the person simply runs, as did Kenneth Harding Jr., who was then shot in the back and killed by Bayview police on July 16, 2011, after they demanded proof he’d paid his $2 Muni fare.

The resolution notes the association of unexplained deaths in custody of “people in states of acute agitation resulting from mental illness.”

It cites research findings that “patients taking prescribed antipsychotic medications” are “at increased risk of sudden cardiac death if tasered.”

In fact, if a taser shock interrupts a person’s heartbeat at a vulnerable point, ventricular fibrillation or heart failure can result. In 2008, Taser International, the Arizona company most favored by SFPD, paid over $5 million in punitive damages for wrongful death when a Salinas, California, man suffered fatal cardiac arrest after being tased for a prolonged 75 seconds.

A study by Pierre Savard, Ing., PhD., Ecole Polythechnique de Montreal, et al., for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. indicated that one taser pulse may induce ventricular fibrillation with a possible lower threshold for women.

Certain categories of people may be at high risk of death by taser: those whose physiology is altered by heart conditions, some medications, illegal drugs or metabolic disorders like diabetic ketoacidosis.

In his Aug. 1 Police Commission presentation, Taser International representative Clay Winn noted tasers are safer for solid body mass persons but more dangerous to lightweight or thin people, children, pregnant women, and frail and elderly citizens.

The Mental Health Board resolution opposes tasers because “the disproportionate use of Tasers against minorities has been well documented by the ACLU and also in a performance audit of the City of Houston in 2008 resulting in a Department of Justice Civil Rights Division investigation which sustained the findings.”

The Idriss Stelley Foundation’s Mesha Irizarry provided data on Black and Brown elders killed by tasers pulled from a list of all taser deaths in the U.S. since 2009:

• Nov. 19, 2009, Jesus Gillard, 61
• Dec. 14, 2009, Linda Hicks, 62
• Oct. 14, 2010, Karreem Ali, 65
• Nov. 6, 2010, Robert Neill Jr., 61
• July 8, 2010, Phyllis Owens, 87
• July 12, 2010, Anibal Rosario-Rodriguez, 61
• Nov. 22, 2011, Roger Anthony, 61
• Sept. 14 2012, Bill Williams, 60

And there are many more.

Irizarry notes Taser International data affirms tasers can cause burns, scars, infections, seizures, hernias, vision loss, tissue and nerve damage.

Tasers do cause injury and death. Andrew Washington died in the Bay Area after being tased 17 times in three minutes. Falling taser victims’ bones and teeth can shatter; some can die plunging from balconies or into water where they drown.

The Mental Health Board resolution states “the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about (taser) use” in 2010.

Perhaps the most comprehensive list, compiled by Truth Not Tasers, reports 766 taser deaths in North America since 1983. Amnesty International calls taser use “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The United Nations Committee Against Torture calls taser use “torture.”

The Mental Health Board resolution supports the Memphis, Tennessee, PD’s CIT training model for de-escalation without taser use.

The board invites San Franciscans with family or friends touched by mental illness, cardiac problems or police brutality; those who fear for vulnerable children, diabetes sufferers, pregnant women, thin people or at-risk elders; and anyone who has observations on the wisdom or efficacy of SFPD taser deployment to make public comment during this hearing.

Idriss Stelley Foundation’s Mesha Irizarry composed and created the resolution with edits and final formatting by San Francisco Mental Health Board Secretary David Elliott Lewis.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharveysf@yahoo.com.

 

6 thoughts on “San Francisco Mental Health Board passes ‘no tasers’ resolution 9-2

  1. realitychick

    Thank you, Ms. Harvey, for your reference to my site Truth Not Tasers. Over the years, I have made attempts to compare notes with Amnesty International on the number of people who have died after they were tasered by police. All of the 766 names on my list have been traced to at least two data sources and often to many more and, somehow A.I. continues to quote a number in the five-hundreds. Among the 766 North Americans who have died (30 of them Canadian), the only common denominator was the taser(s).

    Reply
  2. photothinks

    Please note that while a Taser resolution will be discussed, commented on by the public and voted on, this is not the main focus of tonight's meeting of the Mental Health Board – Wednesday, Nov 14th, 6:30pm, 101 Grove Street, Room 300.

    Most of this meeting will be devoted to a discussion of Laura's law, a controversial California state law that can permit forced treatment of the mentally ill.

    There will be presentations both for and against it. This law has wide reaching implications. It offers the potential to help those in need but also the potential to be abused. Carla Jacobs, who wrote the law has flown up from Los Angeles to present the case for it. Sally Zinman, mental health rights advocate, will present the case against it. It will be an informative and interesting meeting.

    David Elliott Lewis, Ph.D.
    Secretary, Mental Health Board of San Francisco

    Reply
  3. Michael Woody

    Obvoiusly an officer can shoot someone brandishing an edged weapon since it is considered a deadly force implement. CIT Officers if trained correctly have empathy for those individuals suffering this devastating illness. The only less-lethal option a CIT officer would have if the mentally ill person in crisis will not stop advancing on them with an edged weapon is a taser! CIT officers do not want to use deadly force on ill persons, especially mentally ill ones, but given no other viable option they will have to use their guns. After all their baton will not cancel out an edged weapon. Nor will their oleo capsum spray as neither can reach out far enough to stop the individual from getting too close to the officers safety zone. The taser can as it will reach out 21 feet which is important to officers safety issues in research findings. So, I ask you – if it was your mentally ill child in crisis brandishing that edged weapon at officers would you want them to have the OPTION of not using their gun to protect themselves or someone else or use a taser?

    Reply
  4. AZ COP

    As an officer in AZ and a Taser instructor I can tell u these devices save lives period. You can’t reason or negotiate will mentally ill people. It says it in the title mentally ill which suggests the person would not have the mindset of a normal person. A Taser is like any other device a police officer has and if used improperly can cause harm. I have been Tased over 20 times for the full 5 sec cycle and have been drive stunned more times than I can remember. I have even taken a 20 XREP ride. When the alternative is death why would u say no to a Taser. It is all about training officer adequately and correctly and if u look at the cases the majority of injuries and death were due to improper deployment of the device. Not the device itself.

    Reply
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